As homeowners rail against rising property tax assessments, county tax rebels and private appraisers are questioning the qualifications of state assessors.
They want to know why state assessors are exempt from a new law that requires private appraisers to be licensed by astate real estate appraisal commission.
"Why doesn't the state want its people to qualify?" asked one veteran Annapolis appraiser, who asked not to be named. "Who says those of us who are not state assessors are not as qualified as they are? If their people are qualified, let them take the test along with everybody else."
The new state law, which becomes effective July 1, standardizes requirements for private appraisers by setting up three levels of training.
Appraisers who complete the first level receive licenses, and those who finish the second and third levels receive certification for appraising residential and commercial properties, respectively.
The state law follows a federal mandate that all appraisal work be licensed or certified by the state. Though the federal mandate targeted appraisals involving federally insured property, the state law includes all appraisals.
However, the state Department of Assessments and Taxation asked that its 300 assessors, as well as appraisers in other departments that buy and condemn land, be exempted for two reasons, said Ron Wineholt, the department's associate director.
Wineholt said there wasn't enough time or money for all state assessors to take an ethics course required under the new law by July1. And state officials were worried that tax protesters would start clogging the tax appeals system with "frivolous challenges" to assessors' qualifications.
"That sounds like a pretty lame argument to me," said Robert C. Schaeffer, a Severna Park resident who led last year's tax revolt. "If they are licensed, you can't challenge their qualifications."
Schaeffer has been encouraging disgruntled homeowners to appeal their assessments by the Jan. 24 deadline. "We'll worry about grounds later," he said.
"Everybody's just getting such astronomical increases that you have to assume state government worked theproblem backwards and determined how much revenue they needed, and then went out to get it," Schaeffer said.
Nonsense, said Kenneth Tschantre, supervisor of assessments for Anne Arundel County. Tschantre oversees 26 assessors for 166,000 properties.
The 52,000 properties appraised during this year's reassessment cycle are in the southern part of the county and include much waterfront property.
The value of waterfront property has increased dramatically since this section of the county was reassessed three years ago, Tschantre said. Thisfact, coupled with steadily rising tax rates, accounts for the increase in tax bills.
"The values went up through the good years (the late 1980s), but people don't see that," Tschantre said. "All they see is that their uncle or their friend is in real estate, and they say, 'I'm not selling anything because the market's down."
The numberof assessment appeals have been running just above average, he said,with 2,400 appeals as of Friday.
"Unfortunately, people link my department and its mission directly to taxes," Tschantre said. "Our job is to maintain market values on properties in this county. The county determines the tax rate. But we get blamed for the increase in taxes."
State tax officials vigorously defend their assessors againstcharges of incompetence.
"We have no problem with licensing," Wineholt said. "We're willing to meet the same educational standards. Our training courses equal or exceed the standards the private sector has."
A state assessor must complete three 40-hour appraisal courses, be apprenticed for several years and hold a college degree, said Lloyd Jones, director of the Department of Assessments and Taxation.
Their data is open to public scrutiny, he said, and their assessments are checked against home sale prices for consistency.
Private assessors, however, suspect that state tax officials overstate their assessors' qualifications.
"I've known many state assessors who didn't have a college degree," the Annapolis appraiser said. "I'd be very skeptical of that."
Said Schaeffer, "I would bet their training qualifications amount to giving them a handbook and telling them to go out."
Tschantre has heard all this before. "It's part of the job," he said. "The shot that assessors are incompetent is the response of a person who is so angry he is not thinking clearly. Every time somebody gets a traffic ticket, does that entitle us to say the police are incompetent?"